“Maybe all the American people think Latinos and Mexicans only play soccer, but we play football too,” says Carlos Blanco Sr. “Mexican people love the Steelers for the blue-collar people. The people of Mexico are very similar.”
Blanco now lives in Wexford, in the North Hills, with his two sons, Carlos Jr. and Joshua, and his wife, Irma. Their apartment is covered in black and gold: Steelers helmets, Pirates pennants and Penguins posters. In Mexico City, Carlos Sr. owned and ran a restaurant. Starting in 2009, he joined a Steelers fan club and fell in love with Pittsburgh when visiting the country to go to Steelers games in subsequent years.
In 2012, Blanco received threats from a local arm of the Los Zetas criminal syndicate; they demanded bribes from Blanco for protection and he refused. Sometime later, gang members attacked Blanco in his truck and said that his family was next if he didn’t pay up.
The Blancos decided it was time to leave their home country, and they moved to Pittsburgh on tourist visas. (They are currently in the asylum-seeking process; Carlos Sr., Irma and Carlos Jr. have received work permits.)
For Carlos Jr., Pittsburgh was a far different place than Mexico City. But he still had football.
“Honestly, I never had thought I would come here,” says Carlos Jr., who has been playing football since he was 8 years old in Mexico City. “There was a lot of violence and drugs in Mexico City. Now, I stay out of trouble and focus more on school and football.”
When he first moved to Pittsburgh, he played for Woodland Hills High School, but transferred when the family moved to Wexford. He is in the middle of his senior season at North Allegheny High School.
His natural position is linebacker (young Steelers phenom Ryan Shazier is his favorite player), but he has been playing defensive line for the North Allegheny Tigers, while he learns a new playbook. Carlos Jr. says Mexican-style football differs from the American brand.
“Football in Mexico is much more smash-mouth style,” says Carlos Jr. “Here, it is very quick. You have to have technique and can’t just ‘hit somebody.’”
So far, this American style has translated into success for Carlos Jr. His best game was against Penn Hills High earlier this month, when he tallied six tackles and three sacks in a North Allegheny win. Carlos Jr., though a bit undersized for a defensive lineman, uses his speed and quickness to avoid blockers and pursue the quarterback. (His sack-per-game average is the best on his team.)
North Allegheny coach Art Walker, has praise for his D-lineman. “He has worked hard to learn our system. He brings toughness and great effort to our football team,” wrote Walker in an email to City Paper.
Walker added that his player has a chance to play in a Division III college program, but said he needs to “work hard academically in order to qualify and work hard on the field so colleges notice him.” On Oct. 15, Carlos Jr. went on a recruitment trip to Allegheny College in Meadville, which he says was promising.
Walker added that Carlos fits perfectly into North Allegheny’s culture of inclusion and acceptance.
“We talk all the time about how we are all from different backgrounds, races, religions, incomes and etc., and that we are all teammates regardless of our differences,” Walker wrote. “It is so very important to come together as a team and being a football family will have a great impact on our success.”
Carlos Jr. says he hopes football can help him get an education and eventually a good job in Pennsylvania. He says his family has enjoyed life in Pittsburgh so far and the only thing they miss is an abundance of good Mexican food. Carlos Jr. says he will continue to play football in Western Pennsylvania because it makes his family proud.
“I am just trying to get the job done and play well this year,” he says. “I feel really blessed, since some kids who have been here their whole life don’t get to start on the team. I feel proud. That is the best part, making my family proud.”